Jon Cooper is a pretty famous guy right now.
He joined the elite fraternity of head coaches who have won the Stanley Cup three weeks ago in Edmonton when the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars 2-0 in Game 6 of the NHL final - becoming the first B.C.-born head coach ever to win hockey’s most coveted prize.
The Bolts’ second-ever championship win ended 65 days of pandemic isolation in the NHL bubble for the team and touched off a celebration that included a boat parade for the team in Tampa Bay. Wherever they went with that cup the reaction was the same – jubilant adulation.
“It’s been a whirlwind, a lot of fun,” said Cooper, a 53-year-old Prince George native.
“You work so hard to win the Stanley Cup but you don’t prepare for what happens after because you don’t know. It happened so fast, we won, we celebrated and we were on a plane the next morning and all of sudden you get to embrace your family and then it was just two weeks of euphoria.”
Stanley Cup celebrations are notorious for drunk hockey players getting a little out of hand – the Washington Capitals’ fountain dive in 2018 comes to mind – but Cooper said it wasn’t like that this time, not with the coronavirus still posing a threat.
“Just because the sign of the times it’s probably a bit more subdued than normal years, but it’s still seen its share of fun,” he said.
The cup’s handlers probably got a little nervous when Lightning winger Alex Killorn took it for ride on his Sea-Doo, but it didn’t end up falling into the bay and it’s now back in Toronto safe in its usual home at the Hockey Hall of Fame
Unfortunately for the people of Prince George, with the Canada-U.S. border still closed, the cup won’t be likely be coming home with Cooper. The pandemic has halted the tradition of players and coaches having their day with Stanley in their hometowns, at least temporarily.
“Brett Connolly beat me to win a Stanley Cup (in 2018) and I was glad Brett brought the cup to Prince George, he’s an awesome kid and I coached him,” said Cooper. “I thought, I’ll be the first guy to do it (after Turner Stevenson) but Brett was able to do it and I was super-happy about that because I won’t be able to bring it to Prince George.
“If the players in Canada are allowed to have it it’ll be cup parties in the snow, which we’ve never seen.”
There is a bonus in store for the Lightning because the trophy will be returning to Tampa later this fall with all their names engraved.
“I think since the ‘40s, nobody’s got to see their name on the cup because it goes all summer with the players and gets engraved in September, so unless you win it again or you go to the Hockey Hall of Fame, you’ll get to see your name on it,” said Cooper.
“It’s supposedly getting engraved now and then it’s going to come back to us, so we’re all going to get to see our names on it, which is extremely rare.”
Cooper, who started his professional hockey life as a player agent, has won championships at virtually every level he’s coached. His coaching career began in 1999 when he was still a practicing lawyer in Lansing, Mich., after a local judge asked him to coach his son’s high school team, Lansing Catholic Central. Two years later, after moving his law practice to Detroit, he took the Metro Jets to the Silver Cup U.S. national junior B title. Cooper then jumped to the NAHL with the junior St. Louis Bandits and they won back-to-back Robertson Cups in 2008 and 2009. A Clark Cup title followed in 2010 with the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL, the top junior league in the U.S., and in 2012 he captured a Calder Cup AHL championship with the Norfolk Admirals, the Lightning’s top farm team.
As sweet as those championship runs were, none compare to winning the Stanley Cup and the joy that came with hoisting the trophy over his head, surrounded by his team in an empty Rogers Place.
“It doesn’t get any better than this, it’s an incredible feeling,” he said.
“There’s an NHL commercial that basically says ‘No words’ and they interview guys who choke up and don’t know what to say and that’s exactly how it is, you have no words. It’s like a lifetime of work has gone into that moment and then you’re speechless. It’s 35 pounds but it doesn’t feel like that when you lift it.”
Cooper used his phone to Facetime his family and share the moment on the ice and returned to Tampa with the team the next day. The airport firetrucks sprayed a cascade of water over the plane as it arrived and Cooper climbed down onto the tarmac and hugged his wife and three kids for the first time in three months. Their isolation period began with training camp in early July.
“That was an entirely different feeling all in itself, where you’re feeling your kids crying in joy in your arms,” he said. “That was a whole new wave of emotion seeing your family for the first time, an amazing feeling and I’ll never forget that."
A year-and-a-half ago, the Lightning won 62 regular season games to become only the second NHL team to win 60 times in a season. But in a colossal upset, they were swept in the first round of playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Two days after they were eliminated, a woman who lives across the street from Cooper in Tampa gave him a University of Virginia Cavaliers hat. The Cavs had just won the NCAA men’s basketball title, a year after they became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the Division 1 tournament and from that the Lightning drew inspiration. In the chaos that was the Lightning dressing room, while players waited to take their champagne sips from the cup, forward Nikita Kucherov asked Cooper to go find his hat.
“She gave me that right after we lost to Columbus and it gives you something to hold on to,” said Cooper. “Hope’s a powerful emotion and it’s like, ‘somebody else did it, why not us?’ In the end, it’s very similar. The sports are different but the magnitude of the loss was probably similar and that was a motivation for me the most.
“I brought it up with the team in training camp and I brought it up with the team again in the second training camp after the pause. Then to have a player ask for it afterwards was pretty cool.”
Cooper just finished his seventh full season for the Bolts and has two years remaining on his contract. With 577 regular season games under his belt, Cooper has a 347-180-50 record and .645 winning percentage, second only to Scotty Bowman’s .657 percentage for coaches with more than 500 games. Bowman and Cooper are the only coaches to post 60 regular season wins in a season.
This season, the Lightning went 43-21-6 to finish eight points behind the first-overall Boston Bruins. Tampa came out of the seeding round-robin ranked second in the East, then posted series wins over Columbus (4-1), Boston (4-1) and New York Islanders (4-2) before moving on the final.
“We had a good feeling of how we needed to play to win, and part of that was bringing in some of the players we did, but it was mindset that it was OK to win games 2-1, it didn’t have to be 6-1, and that was big,” said Cooper.
“The players took it on the chin last year and I can’t be happier for those guys because they deserve it. They’ve gone through so much heartache. We were talked about as the team that can’t get it done, well we got it done and it wasn’t without failures along the way.”
Cooper is a friend of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber, who won the Super Bowl in 2002, and while the Stanley Cup was being passed around at one of the parties he let Cooper know one of the reasons he’s become a hockey fan.
“He told me, ‘The Super Bowl was unbelievable but, hockey got it right when it comes to trophies. It’s an awesome one.’”
This is shaping up to be an exceptional year for pro sports in Tampa. The Lightning are NHL champions, the Rays are in the World Series and who knows what could happen with the Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, who knocked off the previously unbeaten Green Bay Packers 38-10 Sunday to improve to 4-3.
Tampa will host the Super Bowl on Feb. 7 and Cooper was asked if his championship pedigree will guarantee him a seat or two for the big game at Raymond James Stadium.
“I don’t think Jon Cooper gets the Super Bowl tickets, but I think the Stanley Cup gets them,” laughed Copper. “The Stanley Cup is like walking around with Mick Jagger. It gets whatever it wants.”